A tough act to follow


As Hawai‘i Theatre Center gets ready to celebrate 100 years of showmanship with a performance and soiree Sept. 10, the Pride of the Pacific also looks forward to the next century of stage-worthy productions.

Hawai‘i Theatre Center president and CEO Gregory Dunn knows firsthand how easy it is to get lost in the grandeur of the 100-year-old auditorium.

“I remember performing at one of the first Jim Nabors Christmas specials at the theater, standing on stage looking at this grand place,” he recalls.

In the years since that performance, Dunn found himself back at Hawai‘i Theatre again and again, but this time, as a spectator. He remembers attending numerous shows and participating in fundraising efforts like the Sarah McLachlan benefit concert and community events, such as the notable favorite high-energy Chinatown Chase. So, when the opportunity came about to lead Hawai‘i Theatre at the highest level, well, there’s no business like show business. His background with the Better Business Bureau equipped him to lead the nonprofit through an earned income strategy to make the organization more self-sufficient.

Hawai‘i Theatre has been entertaining guests for 100 years from its historic Chinatown building.

Thanks to that shrewd financial plan, Hawai‘i Theatre’s program budget kept growing — that is, until the pandemic hit. Questions swirled about how to flow with the shifting tides of stay-at-home streaming and the desire to fly the coop to faraway destinations once restrictions were lifted. The answer, according to Dunn, was simple: offer a wider variety of programming. In fact, it’s something the theater has always done and continues to do.

Exciting shows coming up this month are a Napoleon Dynamite film panel on Sept. 16, featuring not only a screening of the cult movie classic, but also a Q&A with two of the film’s stars. Then, Augie T takes the stage Sept. 17 for a comedy showcase, followed by a children’s education program partnership with Pacific Academy of the Performing Arts to debut The Wizard of Oz Sept. 21-25. Finally, rock band Hot Tuna performs acoustic hits Sept. 30.

Hawai‘i Theatre has been entertaining guests for 100 years from its historic Chinatown building.

After that, Dunn guarantees a year’s worth of blockbuster programming that covers genres fit for the whole family.

He recalls past performances by Stars of American Ballet, rock band Jefferson Star Ship, The Beach Boys and hip-hop artist Jay Park as some of his favorites, and the hope, he adds, is to reach entertainment lovers of all ages, styles and preferences who will then build long-lasting relationships with the theater.

“We adjust to the community’s changing needs,” he shares. “Our future is solidifying the diversity or programming and giving everyone a good taste of entertainment in the genres they would most like to see.”

The former stage’s mural and organ PHOTO COURTESY HAWAI‘I THEATRE

Amazing acts have performed within the walls of Hawai‘i Theatre for 10 decades, and Dunn includes in that assembly the local hula hālau, dance groups and nonprofits who stage productions at the Chinatown playhouse year after year. The theater — on both the state and National Register of Historic Places — is a monumental gathering place for friends and family to create lifetime memories, and it’s always looking for help to continue that legacy.

“We’re thankful to those who recognize the value of our nonprofit venue and help support through donors, memberships, contributions and volunteering,” he says, adding that the theater receives no government funding.

The iconic sign fronting the theater remains in place today. PHOTO COURTESY HAWAI‘I THEATRE

The giving hearts behind Hawai‘i Theatre who love the arts have propelled the historic site through the first 100 years, and it’s what will get it through the next century.

“We survived one of the darkest times that the theater has ever faced and came out the other side,” he says.

Art deco in the orchestra lobby PHOTO COURTESY HAWAI‘I THEATRE

Now, Dunn and the rest of the Hawai‘i Theatre staff are working on solidifying the Pride of the Pacific’s next century of service. For inspiration and a bit of encouragement, he looks to those who have come before him, like Sarah Richards, who served at the helm of the nonprofit for 25 years as president. Richards led the charge that secured more than $32 million to restore Hawai‘i Theatre to its current glory, and as the facility enters a new century in Honolulu, Dunn is poised to ensure it remains on center stage for generations to come.

People working behind the scenes back in the day. PHOTO COURTESY HAWAI‘I THEATRE

“Through their leadership and dedication, we have this amazing community treasure still with us today, and it’s up to us now to continue supporting the theater so it’ll be here for the next 100 years,” he says.

Centennial Celebrations

It’s showtime for Cathy Lee, Vikram Garg and Gregory Dunn. ANTHONY CONSILLIO PHOTO

In true Hawai‘i Theatre fashion, its 100th birthday will be filled with talent and entertainment packed to the rafters, and organizers and volunteers are ready to get the show on the road Sept. 10 with two exciting events.

First up is a Through the Decades musical review at 6 p.m. that walks guests through a compilation of hits from the last century. Slated to take the stage for the variety show are the likes of Amy Hānaiali‘i, Johnny Valentine, Kristian Lei, Pōmaika‘i and more, and the troupe will cover hits from movies and shows performed at the theater over the last century.

“Rather than just bringing in one mainland talent to participate, we thought it was an excellent opportunity to work with local performers and have them do a musical variety show on stage,” explains Gregory Dunn, Hawai‘i Theatre president and CEO. “We will show the breadth of talent we have locally, and we’re so grateful to each of the performers and volunteers.”

Following the musical review, guests are also invited to the Centennial Soiree at 8 p.m. that same night, which will shut down Bethel Street for a glamorous night of food by chef Vikram Garg and entertainment. Chairing the 100-year celebration is Cathy Lee, who’s been working with a team of volunteers to put finishing touches on this momentous event that’s aimed at raising $500,000 for the historic theater to make needed repairs and upgrades to keep it running for 100 more years.

Visit hawaiitheatre.com to purchase tickets.